Behaviour and exclusion

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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More than half of UK prisoners were excluded from school. In a new series of articles for SecEd, Karen Sullivan considers the exclusion picture in England and looks at possible alternative approaches

It is hard to miss the fact that zero-tolerance approaches to dealing with students who have breached school rules is fast becoming a trend in our education system.

Indeed, the papers are full of stories about children being sent home for minor breaches of protocol, including incorrect uniform or even late arrival at school and/or to classes. Add to this the imposition of often immediate exclusions for behaviour issues and, most alarmingly, inadequate performance, and we see an issue that is becoming increasingly worrying, with a long and short-term impact on both students and society in general.

The Department for Education suggests that 6,685 pupils were permanently excluded from schools in England alone in 2015/16, an increase of 40 per cent over the past three years.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), these figures go nowhere near showing the real scale of the issue. Their report, Making the Difference: Breaking the Link between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion, published in October 2017, found that 48,000 children are being educated in the AP (alternative provision) sector, designed to continue the education of students who have been excluded from their schools for a variety of different reasons.

Most worryingly, the vast majority of these students are “dropped” before they sit their GCSEs, suggesting that schools may be manufacturing reasons to exclude kids who are not likely to perform well in their exams. The IPPR report suggests that exclusions are rising because schools are “struggling to care for children with complex needs”. And the statistics they present back this up.

It notes: “Excluded children are the most vulnerable: twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown-up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need, and 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems.”

Authors Kiran Gill, Harry Quilter-Pinner and Danny Swift, go on to say that the problem is much bigger than previously recognised and suggest that the rising incidence of mental ill health in young people will cause more vulnerable children to spill into the AP sector.

They state: “Too often this path leads them straight from school exclusion to social exclusion. Excluded young people are more likely to be unemployed, develop severe mental health problems and go to prison.”

In fact, figures suggest that more than half of UK prisoners were excluded from school.

There is a monetary cost, of course, with the same report suggesting that “every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs”. But what about the emotional impact? A report by Barnardo’s – Not Present and Not Correct: Understanding and Preventing School Exclusions, 2010 – found that poverty and social disadvantage increase the risk of being excluded from school, with persistent behaviour issues being most frequently noted as the cause.

The research suggests that exclusion does little to improve behaviour, aggravates alienation from school, and places young people at risk of getting involved in anti-social behaviour crime. It states that “excluding them from the stable routines of school and sending them back to a chaotic home or risky neighbourhood only worsens their behaviour”.

Another study, by the University of Exeter – The Relationship Between Exclusion from School and Mental Health, 2017 – found that exclusion from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness, and warns that excluded children can develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, as well as behavioural disturbance.

Matt Wesolowski teaches in PRUs (pupil referral units, set up to provide education for kids who are excluded, sick or otherwise unable to attend mainstream schools, with the vast majority falling in the former category).

His concern is that exclusions have a huge impact on self-esteem more than anything, and he’s not surprised that so many excluded students end up in the prison system. He explained: “Most of these kids spend their school years being sent out, punished and treated like scum – they are branded ‘bad’ rather than trying to be understood.”

He says that nine times out of 10, the “anger and poor behaviour” stemmed from the fact that they felt “thick” because they couldn’t access the work, usually leading to their exclusion in the first place.

Matt concurs with the findings of the IPPR report, and notes: “The curriculum is not accessible to everyone. There are simply not the funds, thanks to cuts, to help pupils with emotional and social needs, kids who have attachment issues, who have suffered trauma and neglect, or who cannot function in a class of 30. The current state of underfunding and constant scrutiny of schools’ results allows pupils who need more focus simply to slip through the cracks. Their behaviour, because they don’t ‘get it’ is not addressed, and they are, effectively, dumped.”

It’s worth noting, too, that some 70 per cent of those permanently excluded are SEND pupils. Indeed, the Barnardo’s report points to research confirming that the focus on league tables may have reinforced academic aims “at the expense of pastoral care”.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The reasons for exclusions are multi-fold, but so are the solutions – and the ways of avoiding it. Over my next two articles for SecEd, we’ll look at just that.

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